If you’re a white, straight, cis-gendered person, particularly if you’re male, there don’t exist many barriers to traveling the world; there are few destinations where you won’t be welcomed, or at the very least accepted. But for those of us who aren’t this, travel can become immediately more complicated. Not every destination is as tolerant to everyone across the spectrum, and if you identify as LGBTQ+ and as a POC, particularly if you’re Black, ensuring your comfort abroad isn’t as simple as checking a single guidebook. While there are resources for travelers that address these identities individually, very few resources address where they intersect.
We have guidebooks for Black travelers now, certainly. The ABC Travelers Greenbook, published in August of 2020, is an enormous and valuable contribution to the Black travel movement. The guide was created as a reimagining of the Negro Motorists Greenbook, a guide for Black people navigating travel in Jim Crow-era United States. “I wanted to do the same type of thing, but I wanted to do it on an international level,” says Martinique Lewis, creator of the guide.
And what has often been called the gay equivalent of the Greenbook, the legendary Bob Damron’s Address Book, is still going strong in its online iteration, though it serves as a particularly prescient example of why intersectional guides for tourists are so needed. “I believe [Bob] was a very prejudiced man,” said Gina Gatta, currently at the helm of the Damron brand, to LA Magazine in 2019. “I don’t think he liked people of color. And I know he didn’t like dykes. [Bob would] be rolling over in his grave right now if he knew I was running this company.” While both women and people of color have used Damron guides over the years, particularly after Gatta took over operations, it was certainly more difficult for them when the content was aimed at white men.
If you can claim two or more identities that fall under the umbrella of traditionally marginalized groups, you may have felt the sting of endlessly cross-referencing information on a desired destination. And specifically, you may have already felt the disappointment of confirming that a city or country was welcoming of Black people, only to find out it could be dangerous to visit if you’re queer.
Historian and journalist Paula Akpan seeks to change this. What began as frustration when trying to plan a trip with her own partner has morphed into a fully fledged startup dubbed the Black Queer Travel Guide. “With the app, we hope to create a localized digital resource that is filled with content, advice, and recommendations from Black queer travel writers and experienced travelers, meaning that we don’t have to piece together scraps from google searches that mainly pertain to white gay men and cis-het Black travelers,” she tells me of her plans.
Like many Black, queer travelers, Akpan faced her own challenges when planning a trip abroad. “My partner and I were planning a trip to Tanzania back in 2019 and found that our main resources were Google and Wikipedia,” Akpan told me about her frustration in finding resources that would holistically explain what they may face in their travels. “Despite knowing that there are LGBTQ+ folks everywhere, Tanzania included, we didn’t know how to find them and frankly didn’t want to risk our safety or have our first huge trip together marred by looking over our shoulder at every turn.”
The threat to Black queer travelers is more than metaphorical. In 2019, two Black, gay, American members of the Airforce were brutally beaten by a group of Croatian men for “acting gay” at nightclub Opera in the city of Zadar. Ny’Zavian Dozier and Keith Rowe were stationed in Germany but decided to use some of their time off to visit Croatia where the attack occurred. “These guys had every intention of not letting us walk away alive,” related Dozier on his Facebook page. “I have never felt so defenseless in my entire life.”
The owner of the club, Pjerino Bebic, denounced the attack saying, “I condemn any violence,” but went on to say, “we at the Opera have such a relationship that all our guests are welcomed and no one ever looks at skin color, religion or anything like that.” We see here, like in so many other instances of discriminatory violence, that while folks are willing to “welcome” people across a strata of identities, they are frequently less interested in holding everyone across those identities accountable for everyone’s mutual safety.
But truly safe spaces for those at the intersections of marginalized communities do exist, and they exist all over the world. Akpan’s Black Queer Travel Guide seeks to identify these spaces and broadcast their existence to a global audience that is not only interested in visiting them but also rely on places like this to ensure their safety.
Hardly imagined on a whim, taking this project from an idea to a plan took months of research and development. For Akpan, the pandemic provided the perfect atmosphere to lay down the groundwork for the guide. Over the last year, she has taken the time to collect a myriad of resources and perspectives that can aid Black queer travelers globally, and laid the groundwork for an over-arching network of initiatives that will work together under a singular umbrella.
“During the pandemic, I’ve spent four months speaking to over 20 Black queer activists and community organizers around the world,” says Akpan in her GoFundMe campaign, “from Jamaica to Papua New Guinea to Nigeria, finding out about the daily precautions they take in their countries, the grassroots work they’re doing in their communities and how they travel and navigate life.” Armed with this knowledge, she registered the Black Queer Travel Guide as a charitable incorporated company (CIC) and began work on the web application in conjunction with Tech For Better Programme. This collaboration helped Akpan to create the framework for how the app will eventually function, and she imagines a complete rollout to be completed within five years. This will occur in a series of stages.
She is currently in stage one. This includes fundraising, which she has choreographed with GoFundMe. Akpan is asking for 30,000 British pounds and has so far raised about 20 percent. From this crowdfunding campaign, funds will be allocated for graphic design and to hire a moderator, but the bulk of the funds raised are already earmarked to pay contributors.
“As can be seen on the web app, there are placeholders for each country that we believe needed to be written by queer Black writers living in these countries or who have unmatched insider knowledge and can offer authentic information and resources,” she notes in the campaign. She is already actively seeking contributors from around the globe to participate in populating the app with content.
Stage two will focus on the development of a downloadable app. This is when additional features like member profiles, messaging, booking capabilities, and multi-language support will be implemented. Additionally, moving from a web app to a native one will allow better functionality, such as push notifications and a more satisfying overall user experience.
At stage three, with the app and community becoming more established, Akpan will be seeking additional funding and grants to support the project. This will aid her in being able to hire beyond her core team, installing ambassadors in different nations, and consistently publishing more content created by Black queer individuals around the world. Positioning the app and surrounding community as a place for advice as well as support is something Akpan is committed to and believes that this is the best way to address her long term goals for the guide going beyond the initial five-year rollout.
“Black Queer Travel Guide is also more than the app,” she explains, “as a CIC, BQTG is committed to the Black queer communities it will be serving and that’s why funding raised through the app will go into our services of supporting local queer charities and organizations, alongside providing support to Black queer folks who have been harassed, arrested or incarcerated on charges relating to their gender and/or sexuality through financial support for legal services and representation.”
Eventually, she also seeks to implement a conference for Black queer creatives and retreats designed with Black queer people in mind. These types of auxiliary enterprises are what will secure the app as a cornerstone of a broader mission that seeks to support Black queer communities and individuals worldwide.
If there was any doubt that this is a much-needed resource, the feedback Akpan has received has already quelled any lingering uncertainty. “People are excited, which is nice to see,” she tells me. “I think it’s one of those things that should already exist in this format, and it’s surprising that it doesn’t. Despite it being tricky to think about travel in the midst of a pandemic, now that people are getting vaccinated, it feels like there is some sort of end in sight.”
The pandemic has changed our entire way of life, but so many of us, when faced with the prospect of returning to “normal,” feel as if normal was never servicing us to begin with. The dangers that Black people and queer people face individually when traveling abroad are only compounded when they are suffered together, and while the world begins to open up, a resource like this assures that our new-normal better serves the needs of an increasingly large group of travelers.
“I know that potential users are hoping to connect with Black queer communities through the app when the world opens up again,” says Akpan. This app can help us do that.